Song of Sparrows

By Laura Gatewood
Avaze gonjeshk-ha (Iran)
Song of Sparrows, the latest feature from Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi (who made the much celebrated and Oscar-nominated film Children of Heaven in 1997), is the heartfelt story of a well-intentioned family man trying to make ends meet that begins its first half with the promise of a deeper resonance than it perhaps ultimately delivers.
Majidi teams up again with his mainstay lead actor, Mohammed Amir Naji, who plays Karim, a gruff but big-hearted father who is meant to be about twenty years younger than Naji’s actual age, though the seasoned actor pulls off the stunt with ease. Naji embodies Karim’s weather-beaten lifelong ostrich wrangler whose life is turned upside down after he loses a prize ostrich and must seek new employment as a taxi driver in the big city to earn enough money so he can replace his daughter’s broken hearing aid before her important school exams begin. Complicating Karim’s life is his younger son’s determination to clean out their rural well and save enough money to fill it with goldfish he believes he can then sell for millions of dollars, despite his father’s admonishments that such a dream will never succeed.
The movie begins with a scene of Karim at his day job as an ostrich-wrangler in rural Iran, a job he seems comfortable in, both in the respect of his colleagues and handling of the large, temperamental birds. But upon hearing news that his daughter has lost her hearing aid, the movie quickly established Karim’s overriding love for his family when he runs home in the middle of work to help his daughter locate it after it fell into the dirty well near his house.  The hearing aid is eventually found but the water has leaked into the battery and must be replaced for his daughter to have a fighting chance of passing her exams. Before he can buy her a new one, however, one of the prized ostriches at the farm escapes into the mountains and even though Karim tries to track it down in one of the movie’s most endearingly humorous scenes where he fashions a fake ostrich head and neck to his own body and stalks the escapee, he fails and subsequently loses his job and pay because of it.
His male pride unwilling to admit he got fired to his wife and family, Karim instead begins working as a taxi driver in the big city of Masshad after a businessman mistakes him for one as he is waiting outside a hearing aid store. His misadventures as rural farmer to city taxi driver lead him to begin collecting construction odds and ends and returning them to his home, where the hill-sized build up eventually collapses on Karim, breaking his leg and leaving him on bed rest until he is healed, in the movie’s case both externally and spiritually, from the harm visited upon him while he was working in the bustling Masshad. Karim’s return to health coincides with the discovery that his son has managed to clean the well and raise enough money to buy his fish to breed, and the trip to collect the new fish and return them to their new home results in the climax of the film, where Karim’s son first learns the hard lessons of life that his father no doubt discovered long ago. But both father and son are offered a reprieve from harsh realities at the end, for his son has been able to save two fish that might breed more, and Karim is offered his old job back after the long errant ostrich finally returns to the farm.
Song of Sparrows tracks a few months in a grown man’s life where he has to re-invent himself to protect his pride and his family, making short-range choices as a matter of necessity rather than greed, and the ensuing battle to maintain his integrity as he tries to earn enough money for a new hearing aid among the complex environment of urban commercial living is a worthy story where the drama is developed more through the subtext than the apparent plot.  Majidi threads a motif of a common man’s good intentions never completely fulfilled due mostly to accidents and bad luck, whether from a torn bag that leaks some of the special tasty fruit that Karim purchases after one of his first days working in the city or his son’s barrel of prized fish that overturns and spills hundreds of fish and his son’s dreams.  Naji is the lynchpin of the film, and his expressive, elegant and understated performance beautifully captures the struggle of a simple and inherently good man trying to do right by his family out of love and pride. Majidi’s technical filmmaking complements the story, as he often places Karim in the center of his shots, small and alone in the world around him, whether witnessed when he is trudging across a large field carrying a blue door on his back or bustling through the busy streets of Masshad.
Both Majidi and Naji make Karim a victim of circumstance more than anything, and as an audience it is refreshing to see a hero whose battle is the everyday waywardness of life rather than mutant monsters or evil terrorists.  Song of Sparrows seems to build towards a revelation that is never quite given, but the story and acting make it worth the journey even if there isn’t a truly gratifying destination.
Co-Written and directed by: Majid Majidi

Karim: Mohammed Amir Naji